This time last year the war on plastics stepped up a gear as a total ban on microbeads came into force on the 9th and Mrs May gave businesses a time limit of 25 years to ditch plastic packaging. Iceland have already taken up the challenge and pledged to do it in just 5 years and this week they unveiled two own label ready meal ranges, Hungry Heroes and Mumbai Street Co, which are among the first to be packaged completely in pulp and paper packaging. Hungry Heroes, a children’s healthy meal range, was co-developed with Channel Mum, a thriving parenting online community so it’s clear that Iceland is responding to a strong consumer appetite for biodegradable packaging.
Other food giants are following suit with Waitrose pledging to drop black plastic from their own label products and Coca Cola unveiling its global recycling initiative – rather than opting for biodegradable substrates the drinks company is aiming for multiple use packaging. Soft drinks companies do seem to be vying for who can be completely recyclable soonest with Evian aiming for 2025 while Coca Cola’s ambitions lag 5 years behind at 2030. It is not just the major companies who are chasing recycling nirvana as Harrogate Spring Water introduced shrinkable bottles last summer to encourage consumers to take home their empties and recycle them.
So what are the options for a smaller brand aiming for biodegradable packaging? One of the key challenges is shelf life as Eat Troo found. Each of their range of cereals come in a compostable pouch but it only has a shelf life of 6 months, not the more normal 12 months. The bags have a water based inner coating which provides the same protection as plastics but is only reliable for 6 months. Whilst this is bad news for huge conglomerates it is not necessarily a challenge for smaller, more agile companies but it does mean we will have to think differently about how the goods get to the consumer in the future.
The exciting thing about the war on plastics is that it is triggering new ways to look at manufacturing. Chicken feather plastic is one example. This product has been bubbling under for a few years now and a couple of years ago a US company worked out how to convert chicken feathers (a waste product of the poultry industry) into completely biodegradable plastic. Of course with the upsurge in veganism this product may not prove viable, but other options for biodegradable plastic film are also developing rapidly, with starch based products starting to be realistic commercially. But if beautiful packaging wrapped around an amazing artisanal product is your vision you could do worse than opt for casein plastic. Again, this is completely biodegradable as it is made from milk proteins but it is arguably the most beautiful of plastics and is already in use for jewellery across the world.
Consumers being who they are however, the stalwart cardboard box and paper bag may well be the way of the future as the focus that consumers place on biodegradable will herald a new era in packaging. We will see less become more and as environmental credentials rise to the fore in purchasing decisions, branding will become both more difficult and of even more critical importance.